Google Inc. is working on a new, freely accessible internet encyclopedia that will consist of material submitted by people who want to be identified as content experts and possibly profit from their knowledge.

The concept, outlined last week in a posting on Google’s web site, poses a potential challenge to the nonprofit Wikipedia, which has drawn upon the collective wisdom of unpaid, anonymous contributors to emerge as a widely used online reference tool. But whether Google’s effort will produce a resource that is more reliable than Wikipedia—which many educators do not allow as an authoritative source for student research papers—is open for debate.

Google is calling its alternative “knol”—the Mountain View, California-based company’s shorthand for a “unit of knowledge.”

For now, submissions are by invitation only as Google fine-tunes the system, but the internet search leader said it eventually will publish articles by all comers.

“There are millions of people who possess useful knowledge that they would love to share, and there are billions of people who can benefit from it,” Ubi Manber, Google’s vice president of engineering, wrote in the company’s posting about the new service. “We believe that many do not share that knowledge today, simply because it is not easy enough to do that.”

Since it was founded on the same knowledge-sharing premise six years ago, Wikipedia has compiled 2.1 million English-language articles, as well as millions more in dozens of other languages. The topics cover everything from Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity to video games like “Beavis and Butt-head in Virtual Stupidity.”

Wikipedia attracted 56.1 million U.S. visitors in October, making it the eighth most popular web site, according to comScore Media Metrix. Google’s properties, which include the video-sharing site YouTube, drew 131.6 million U.S. visitors, second only to Yahoo Inc.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales downplayed Google’s latest move. “Google does a lot of cool stuff, but a lot of that cool stuff doesn’t work out so great,” he said.

Google’s flops include a service that used to hire researchers to track down hard-to-find answers for befuddled web surfers. The feature never took off in its four-year existence, prompting Google to pull the plug last year.

While Google tinkers with its encyclopedia, Wales already is poised to invade Google’s turf with a Wikia search engine scheduled to debut later this month. The search engine will be operated by Wikia Inc., Wales’ for-profit venture.

The Googlepedia, as some observers are already calling Google’s new offering, will differ from Wikipedia by identifying who wrote each article and striving to reward the authors by giving them a chance to make money from Google’s lucrative advertising network.

Critics say Wikipedia’s cloak of anonymity has made its articles more vulnerable to mischief and other abuses that have led to inaccuracies.

Citizendium, an internet encyclopedia that launched earlier this year, also insists on identifying the writers of its articles. But, unlike Google, Citizendium relies on a collaborative editing process to verify the accuracy of its articles.

“Google will not serve as an editor in any way, and will not bless any content,” Manber wrote. “All editorial responsibilities and control will rest with the authors.”

Google is hoping to keep the contributors honest by allowing visitors to rate the entries and leave comments.

That won’t be enough, predicted Larry Sanger, Citizendium’s editor-in-chief, who also helped start Wikipedia.

“Knol is apt to produce precisely the same sort of uneven content, with many of the same abuses, that Wikipedia has,” Sanger wrote in a posting on Citizendium’s site. “Without actual editors, the same sort of problems about misleading and damaging information are apt to plague knol.”

Google, which is expected to earn more than $4 billion this year, also wants to make money off its encyclopedia. Although the resource will be available free of charge, just like Google’s search engine, the company wants to place ads related to the topics covered on each page.

The advertising is an option being left up to the person submitting an article. Google is trying to persuade the writers to participate by guaranteeing they will receive a “substantial” share of the revenue.

The profit incentive could turn Google’s encyclopedia into a magnet for articles about highly commercial subjects instead of more academic topics, Wales predicted: “You may see an awful lot of articles about Viagra.”

Even if it’s not considered an authoritative source, Google’s new internet encyclopedia could prove useful as a classroom tool, for the same reason some educators already have embraced Wikipedia as a tool for learning.

Though many educators cringe when students turn to Wikipedia as a reference for term papers, University of Washington-Bothell professor Martha Groom has taken more of an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach to the popular internet site.

Instead of asking students in her environmental history course to turn in one big paper at the end of the semester, she requires them either to write an original Wikipedia article or to do a major edit on an existing one.

The inspiration came to her as she prepared teaching materials for her class.

“I would find these things on Wikipedia” and would think, “Gosh, this is awfully thin here. I wonder if my students could fill this in?” she said.

For her students, the Wikipedia assignment reportedly was “transformative,” and students’ online writing online reportedly proved better than the average undergraduate research paper.

Knowing their work was headed for the web, not just for the eyes of one harried professor, helped students reach higher, Groom said—as did the standards set by the volunteer “Wikipedians” who police entries for accuracy and neutral tone. The exercise also gave students a taste of working in the real world of peer-reviewed research.

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